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Hope Forward: Surviving and Thriving through Emotional Pain: Do Men Know Why They Cheat?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Do Men Know Why They Cheat?

“It takes two to speak truth, one to speak and another to hear.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

Yes, I know...the next post (or at least a future one) will be "Do Women Know Why They Cheat." I am just starting with the men because...well I just am.

On a regular basis I sit with couples who are facing the aftermath of infidelity. I listen to the hurt partner's pain, frustration, confusion, anger and shock. I listen to the acting partner's pain, frustration, confusion, anger and shock. Everyone has their feelings. But more often than not, neither one really knows too much about what happened. Or why.

I hear about all the sleuthing that the hurt partner has done, is doing. I hear all about looking at cell phone bills, text messages, emails, web site histories. I hear about the demand for the whole truth, the lying, the fudging, the "I don't want to her hurt hers." And I hear about the hurt partner's insistence (often, but not always) on wanting to know every down and dirty detail. "How many times?" "What position?" "Did you hold her afterwards?" "Was she better than me?" "Do you love her?" "Was it just sex?" "What was she wearing?" "Who initiated?" "What did you eat?" "Why that bar?" "Was it during work, or only after hours?" On and on.

And the tedium of constant reminders on TV, in casual conversations, on certain days of the week or dates of the month. Reminders everywhere like little knives shooting through the hurt partner's heart. And the answers, all the reminders, are like little jack hammers sending up pieces of concrete into the face of the relationship. And the asking itself, by the hurt spouse, causing the acting partner all kinds of guilt and shame, and sometimes, annoyance and agitation. Further damage, "She is constantly nagging me now. She won't leave me alone." "I know I hurt her, but I can't stand the bombarding."

And then, underneath the pain, the thick layer of real confusion. Why did this happen. Why did I really do this? Who's fault is it? Am I a cheat? A liar? A creep? Do I love her? Am I doing what my father did? Is it her fault? Why can't I stop myself? Am I allowed to be angry with my wife/partner?
Many men do not really know why they go outside their marriage for sex or love. There are the old guesses of course....the looking to feel more potent, connected, desired, tended to. The physical drive for more interesting, better, or more exciting sex. Or perhaps the need to send a message to their wife/partner or even themselves, that they are suffering in some way and have no way to say it. They have no words to use to name the problem. Or feel they have no ears to speak them to. A potent combo of feelings and drives.
I think also, that we humans find ourselves wanting to hurt or punish those who frustrate us or hurt us. We don't want to be told what we can or can't do, and we look for ways to feel powerful, stable and satisfied. When we send messages through actions rather than words, things can get very messy indeed.
Sometimes, its just not easy, or even possible for a man to let his wife know that he is struggling with their sex life. Or their home life. Or the feelings he gets from her. Or his own unidentified but nagging restlessness. Perhaps he really does not want to hurt her. Perhaps on some level, he does. Perhaps he thinks she will get offended, or critical, demeaning or defensive if he tells her his thougths about their relationship, his needs, his fears. Maybe he himself does not really know much, except that he is looking, wanting. Perhaps his male wired drives are fueling his pain and frustration. Perhaps he believes he is out of control with his desires. Or that he has no options. Or that he will not be heard, or helped. He may see on the horizon, only deprivation and ridicule for his thoughts, not understanding, interest and willingness to find new paths. Maybe he feels entitled, but uncertain underneath, about this too.
I often wonder what would happen if couples would talk about wanting to cheat before they actually did. I see in my office that there is abundant hope when this happens. Yes, it can be painful. Yes, it takes time. Yes it means sorting through things a bit. But when there is dialogue there is hope. When there is insight there can be healing. And there can be better sex and more love too, for everyone.
Many couples actually report better sex after an affair. For some women the wake up call rings loud and a woman's instinct to compete and fight for her man kicks in. She is mad, hurt, betrayed, but she is not down and out.
Of course the pain runs deep for many. But I think we have choices, both before and after the act and the hurt. Couples can rebuild and recoup. Sometimes it seems like no amount of understanding or apology will good enough. That past wounds will always keep popping back open and poisoning the present. These moments can be hard to negotiate for everyone. They can bring up more bad feelings of inadequacy, failure, rejection, hate, shame and frustration....the worst of the worst for many folks. Tolerating these feelings and staying the course can sometimes seem impossible. Not repeating past mistakes can seem un-doable. The temptation to withhold current praise, love, appreciation for the good can loom large, and giving good feelings of acceptance, tolerance, love and hope can seem overly generous, risky, and undeserved.
But when men are willing to take a look inside themselves and the relationship, and women are willing to hang in there and let them, help them, (gulp) reward them even...then everyone benefits. On some level, perhaps, it is better to stay married than to stay angry. It is better to live without trust for a while than to live without the person that you love. It depends on the situation, of course, but I am a believer in talking. And I am a believer curiosity, in studying the situation and learning about what happened and why.

There are always choices. The right dialogue can bring relief and grace and new possibilities. I see it all the time.


jss said...

I suspect the myriad motivations for why men cheat are very much the same for women. I find it very hard to believe that men as human beings with the emotional needs of a human being, just like women are human beings with the same emotional needs, have motives for cheating that are different from women. I think western society paints a broad picture of men as the 'cheaters', the villains when I suspect that many women also cheat, perhaps women are just better at hiding it, or perhaps do not generally cheat on the grand scale (see Woods, Tiger) that it seems so many men do. We forget that our society holds very different rules and expectations for each of the sexes and in the cheating these rules and expectations are frequently played out. That a husband and wife team might be cheating on each other, he with twenty-five other women and she with a mere one or two men does not necessarily mean they are each looking for different things or hold different values. But we tend to think that men are the pigs and women are the nurturing victims, always responsible for keeping the home fires burning.

Getting to know ourselves better, and let’s be truthful, most of us don’t know ourselves at all, reveals amazing surprises and insights into our motivations and it can hold the wonderful promise of not only being able to afford ourselves a little gentleness and forgiveness for our own indiscretions but also for the seemingly unforgiveable transgressions of those who hurt us.

Melissa Groman, LCSW said...

jss, your comments are much appreciated! "Wonderful promise...genlteness and forgiveness...." So nicely written...I agree and am so glad you posted!

Ced said...

I'm a woman in her 50's and have cheated on my boyfriends only twice in my life. Once when in my 20's and then in my 30's. The reasons were pretty much the same. One of them cheated on me first,and the other couldn't decide if he wanted to stay in the relationship with me because he wasn't sure he was in love. In both cases I was hurt, in disbelief, and devastated. That turned into anger and loss of respect and caring for those men for a time. I found myself immediately looking to have an affair, not just open to it, but actively seeking it. My point is I guess is that validation and a feeling of being appreciated and desired was what I believe I needed when I did what I did. I may be different from other women who have cheated but I thought I'd post my woman's point of view on here.

Melissa Groman, LCSW said...

Hi Ced,
Glad you stopped by and glad to have your point of view. I'm sure many women share it.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this piece. My boyfriend and I are going to be entering into couples counseling next week to try and pick up the pieces after his repeated attempts (unsure if he succeeded) to cheat through online dating profiles. I would get so angry when his only response would be "I don't know why I did it".

Melissa Groman, LCSW said...

your welcome... good luck with couples counseling!